As today is the UN World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, we thought we would draw attention to some of the many ways people have sought to cope with drought and its consequences, as found in our collections.
The illustration to the right is from a page in a Chinese Shiwu Bencao, a dietic herbal of the Ming period (1368-1644). It depicts two figures, one sweeping snow from the ground and the other storing it in a jar, during the last lunar month of the year. This month was known as layue, a time of offerings to the spirits and gods, and the snow that fell then was called laxue, or final month snow. It had sacred qualities and, carefully sealed and stored in a dark place, retained a potency for many years. Crops that were covered in final month snow were thought to resist drought, and the care with which these figures collect the snow in the cold still season reflects a concern for the uncertainties of agriculture and the civilisations that depend upon it.
These uncertainties have formed a close bond between farmers and their crops, and there are few places where this is more apparent than in the high desert mesas of northern Arizona. Here, the Hopi people have sustained an agriculture growing corn in a harsh, meagre environment for nearly a thousand years. For the Hopi, corn is not only sustenance but a ‘ceremonial object, prayer offering, symbol, and sentient being unto itself’ , and Hopi farmers intimately nuture each seedling, singing to the growing plants to aid the work of the sun. Relying almost solely on precipitation and run-off water in a predominately arid climate, care and attention go hand in hand with prayer and supplication, as shown in this photograph of a ceremonial corn planting. Such ceremony – embodied in late winter katsinas dances – is a vital support for this tenuous agriculture, and an entreaty to the spirits of the earth, the sky, and the clouds to bring rain and continued life.
The experience of drought in our own mostly grey and wet land has at various times inspired similar entreaties to the sky. During a long dry period in 1615, Samuel Page, incumbent of St Nicholas church in Deptford, observed in a sermon that ‘the heavens above us’ were now made ‘as brasse, and these have locked up the treasure of raine’. He went on to decry:
The earth is sensible of this calamitie, the face of it is discoloured, the grasse is burnt up, the fruits faile, the greene hearbe is withered, the earth openeth her mouth wide, and gapeth for thirst, and no clouds but of dust, have for a long time rained upon us: the beasts of the field have felt this woe, who have wanted their necessary food: only wee who know the cause of all this, and are too blame for all this, for whose sins, the earth, the beasts of the field suffer, wee doe not change garment, or countenance for the matter, the drunkard drinkes not a draught the lesse, nor comes to Church the more for it; the wonton abateth nothing of his delights, nor the worldly man of his desires: but aske the Rich man of the earth, will all the wealth which they have heaped up buy us one shower of raine now in this our extremest necessite: I say not to quench the great thirst, but to lay the dust thereof?
Though Samuel Page acknowledged ‘there be natural causes, which produce drought, and the learned Students in the Bookes of ceslestiall bodies, give good accompt often of these accidents’, he called for his congregation to pray for their sins, as ‘the Medicinall Antidote against miserie’. Given that the title of his next sermon was ‘A Thanksgiving for Raine’, he may well have felt his words were well heeded.
For those of us with less faith in the expediency of prayer, Frank Rowntree, Health Education Officer for Sheffield in the 1970s, offers practical advice on the steps needed to keep drought at bay in modern Britain, advice that is still pressingly relevant some forty years after it was first broadcast as one of his regular health features for BBC Radio Sheffield.
 Virgil Masayesva and Dennis Wall, ‘People of the Corn: Teachings in Hopi Taditional Agriculture, Spirituality, and Sustainability’, American Indian Quarterly, vol. 28, nos. 3 & 4 (2004).